Advice and counsel: Former State Bar of Michigan leader took wise words to heart


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

A University of Notre Dame alum, Tom Ryan took joy in the outcome of last week’s gridiron encounter with Michigan State.

The lopsided win by the Fighting Irish helped soothe the wounds from last season’s less than stellar record, which may have caused Ryan to revisit his own football career that was nearly short-circuited.

As a would-be player in a youth football league in Grosse Pointe, Ryan fell two pounds short of the required weight, forcing him to temporarily shelve his gridiron aspirations for another sport instead.

“I decided to take up bowling,” he said with a smile.

It proved to be a wise move, as the young kegler rolled an impressive 233 game in one of his first forays at the sport, recording seven strikes, including four in a row and three in succession at various points.

Still, later in his youth, Ryan had the itch to try out for football again. His coach would be a man who later would carve a name for himself in metro Detroit and

Gene Gargaro, a prominent Detroit attorney and longtime chair of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“I think he soon recognized that I should have stuck with bowling,” Ryan said with a chuckle.

Years later, Ryan was wise to remember a piece of fatherly advice that has stood the test of time for the past president of the State Bar of Michigan who earlier this year marked his 44th year as an attorney.

Ryan, who concentrates his practice in municipal law and in alternative dispute resolution work, attributes his legal longevity to some early words of wisdom from his father, Frank, a tool and die maker who rose from the ranks of the factory floor to eventually become vice president of a manufacturing company.

“He always said to me, ‘Be your own boss,’” Ryan related. “If I heard that once, I heard that a hundred times from him. It was something that he longed for in his own career. He always wanted to go into business for himself, but the opportunity never quite presented itself.”

For Ryan, on the other hand, the chance to “blaze my own trail” came early in his legal career following graduation from the University of Detroit School of Law. It may have been a partial response to a pair of jobs he held while attending night school at U of D.

“I worked at the Wayne County bail program, a job that was a real eye-opener for someone embarking on a legal career,” Ryan said. “I also had a job as a substitute teacher – and I have the scars to prove it. Those two jobs taught me a lot about what I didn’t want to do in life.”

Ryan was a law clerk at Plunkett Cooney before accepting a teaching fellowship overseas in the fall of 1973. He taught French students classes in constitutional law, torts, and contracts, hoping that it would lead to a job in international law in Washington, D.C. upon his return to the U.S.

Instead, Ryan landed a job in 1975 with the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office then headed by L. Brooks Patterson, spending two years there in various roles, learning the legal ropes from attorneys such as Leonard Gilman, who would later become U.S. Attorney in Detroit.  Two years later, he entered the world of private practice, eventually joining forces with attorney Tom Dillon in Oakland County, where “I cut my teeth in the field of municipal law,” Ryan indicated. When Dillon retired in 1982, Ryan was enjoying success building his own practice, eventually representing such municipalities as Bloomfield Township, Clarkston, Keego Harbor, Beverly Hills, and Orchard Lake, while also handling a variety of criminal defense and private litigation matters.

“Being a solo practitioner is not for everybody,” Ryan admitted. “It can get dicey at times, but I like having the ability to call my own shots even without the resources of a large firm. Of course, I have been fortunate to have received a lot of help over the years in building a practice from a number of former judges, current judges, clients, lawyers, and staff members. Obviously, nobody can do it by themselves. Still, there is a special satisfaction that comes from building something from the ground up, knowing that you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into making it happen.”

He imparted that message to fellow solo practitioners around the state when he served as president of the State Bar of Michigan in 2000-01, capping a rise up the bar association ranks that he marvels at to this day.

“I never would have dreamed that I would become State Bar president when I first ran for the Oakland County Bar board in 1986,” Ryan said. “I simply wanted to give back to my profession, to be something more than just a joiner. I wanted to contribute in a meaningful way. Everybody has a part to play in the success of the bar, not just the big firms.”

Seven years after he was elected to the OCBA board, Ryan was chosen as president for 1993-94, some 30 years removed from the time his mentor, Tom Dillon, headed the Oakland Bar.

“There was a bit of symbolism in that,” Ryan said. “For Tom, it was as if I was the son he didn’t have.”

His involvement in State Bar activities was encouraged by attorney George Googasian and would saddle him with the tongue-in-cheek title of “Landslide Ryan” after he won a seat on the Board of Commissioners by a 26-vote margin in his first elective try.

“I eventually was asked to get on the chair list, which ramps up your involvement considerably,” Ryan said. “It was a tough decision to make, since I had five kids and a solo practice.”

When he ascended to the State Bar presidency, Ryan reached out to his friends, attorneys Tom Plunkett and Tom Cranmer, for help, according them the unofficial titles of “co-chiefs of staff” for the new man in charge.

A member of the Judicial Tenure Commission since 2005, Ryan is a Detroit native, living on the east side of the city until the age of 7 when his family moved to Grosse Pointe Woods. He graduated from Detroit Austin, a Catholic high school that produced the likes of the late NBA great Dave DeBusschere.

“It was a terrific school and I have maintained great friendships with classmates over the years,” said Ryan, who regularly meets with Austin alums at the Roma Cafe near the Eastern Market in Detroit.

One of three children, Ryan has a special twinkle in his eyes when he speaks of his late mother and father, Betty and Frank, both Detroit east-siders who achieved “the gold standard as parents.”

He has a similar gleam when talk turns to his wife, Colleen Ronayne, a distinguished lawyer in her own right, and the couple’s five children, Meghan, Brendan, Molly, Maureen, and Daniel. His wife is a U-M grad who earned her J.D. from Detroit College of Law. She is one of 11 children and her father, a doctor, was a Detroit Catholic Central grad and “an absolute institution there” who may have looked askance at one of his daughters marrying a Detroit Austin alum.

Several years ago for Christmas, Ryan’s daughter, Meghan, a Notre Dame alum, gave him tickets to the national title game in Miami between Alabama and unbeaten Notre Dame, his beloved alma mater.

“When I opened the present, I was speechless – for one of the few times in my life,” Ryan said with a smile.

There were few smiles among the Irish faithful after the title game, which saw the Crimson Tide drub Notre Dame 42-14 to claim their second straight national championship.

“It was a downer, no doubt about it,” Ryan said of the setback. “But Notre Dame is my team, win or lose, and that’s the way it will always be no matter how many times I leave a stadium disappointed.”